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Radiohead - Kid A CD (album) cover

KID A

Radiohead

 

Crossover Prog

3.91 | 549 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
5 stars By late 2001, I had owned OK Computer for a few months, and after some initial resistance the album and the band were starting to warm on me. I didn't really want to make my next purchase The Bends, since I wasn't thrilled about buying an album I'd heard was heavily seeped in 90's rock stylistics, but I kept hearing a number of bad things about Kid A too. I knew some people who liked it, but I kept being told by people that the album was too difficult and wanky for its own sake, and that there weren't many real songs on it, and generally that it made no sense and was close to unlistenable. Eventually I decided to make Kid A my second Radiohead album, and as I started to listen I really had no idea what I'd think of the album by the end. Well, by album's end, my gut reaction was this: all the people who had told me all of these various bad things about the album were drooling idiots with no attention spans.

I have NEVER gotten the supposed excessive difficulty of this album. I mean, it's certainly a less immediately accessible album than The Bends, as it's far from the guitar rock style of that album, but I don't buy for a second the idea that Kid A is some unlistenable monster. One thing that is obvious is that this album draws from different influences than The Bends and the bulk of OK Computer; this one reeks of Brian Eno, "post-rock"/electronica, Can and even old-school free jazz (the saxophones in "National Anthem"). The thing is, though, with the possible exception of the free jazz influences, I can't buy the notion that any of these sources are really that difficult to absorb. You just have to have a taste for music that relies on more than just strong melodies and immediately understandable lyrical topics to enjoy them. True, many people essentially think that such music has no real emotional power and can only be enjoyed by pretentious people (are there really people like that around here, though?), but I find that mentality somewhere between pitiful and loathsome. I like well-done pop music too, but focusing only on melody as a worthwhile element of music (as did so many people I knew who disliked this album) while ignoring mood, texture, and half a dozen other features just seems ridiculous to me.

Why do I rate Kid A so highly? It's simple, really: every track on here works on some level that I can appreciate and enjoy. The melodies aren't usually immediately memorable, which puts off a lot of people, but that's because they aim to succeed in other ways. For instance, take what I consider the album's weakest track (which I still enjoy plenty), "In Limbo." This is actually one of the more guitar-centered tracks on the album, full of quiet arpeggiation, but what makes the track work is the disorienting, chaotic and hazy layering of the vocals. The only easily discernable lyrics in the piece come whenever Thom sings "You're living in a fantasy world," and that's fitting in a track that feels like a weird dream happening close to reality but not quite in it. In other words, it's a track that reminds me of what a limbo state would be like.

I like the album's most controversial track, the ambient instrumental "Treefingers," for a similar reason. A lot of people consider this the quintessential example of the album's problems; a boring, go-nowhere drone that should have been an outtake. The thing is, though, as with the best of Eno's ambient work, I have little difficulty associating this track with a specific mental image. Every time I listen to this track, I envision myself in a forest after dark, surrounded by endlessly tall trees with long branches. As the track develops, the branches of the trees around me bend down and grab me, slowly raising me high above the ground to a giant black mouth in the sky. It is a deeply unsettling set of images that fits a deeply unsettling track, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

The rest of the album, on the whole, is just fantastic. "Everything in its Right Place" is a perfect introduction, both in terms of establishing the album's sound (the music in the track is driven almost solely by soft, understated keyboards) and in terms of establishing the album's general mood (one of crushing paranoia, confusion and despair). I've noticed that a lot of people are bothered by the fact that the vocal melody isn't strong in any traditional sense, and that the lyrics aren't immediately coherent, and that there are a lot of backwards vocals stuffed into the background. Now, I'm not exactly somebody who automatically loves songs that include elements like this, but I am somebody who likes it when elements of this nature obviously have a point, and this track delivers. The title track, then, must have thrown fans of the band for a complete loop, as it's a total "post-rock" electronica piece that deviates far from any definition of "song" the band had previously used. What fascinates me most about the track is not the main portion, a mix of completely indiscernible processed vocals, synth textures and drum sounds that sound like they're from "Peking-O" (by Can), but rather the simple, somewhat off-kilter piano line that starts the piece and pops up again later. It reminds me a LOT of a computer game from the early 90's called The 7th Guest, which was basically a puzzle game set in a haunted house where a bunch of people died. Aside from the ridiculous upbeat ending (which still seems tacked on to me and which was one of the most shattering disappointments of my youth), that game has one of the creepiest atmospheres I have ever come across, and anything that can remind me of it is ok in my book.

"The National Anthem" is another track that a lot of fans seem to hate, though just as many seem to like it. One thing I think is a mistake is to put too much emphasis, for good or bad, on the chaotic horn soloing that largely takes over the track near the end. I think there are lots of people that basically say, "Oh, a track that has complicated free jazz discord, this automatically makes it a great track," and I also think there are a lot of people that basically say, "Oh, a track that has complicated free jazz discord, this automatically makes it horrible." Well, I know some people will disagree with me, but I really see the sax parts as a finishing touch on the song, and not the main feature (the live version on I Might be Wrong does just fine without it), so pegging one's attitude on the song to one's feeling on the horn parts seems overdone to me. I'm personally more enthralled with the simple, yet powerful bassline, the disorienting vocals, the creepy synths, and the overall paranoid effect of the piece.

"How to Disappear Completely" is the album's most accessible track (at heart it's just a sad acoustic ballad), but that's not the reason I consider it one of the highest points on the album. I mean, this is just a masterful depression anthem, with amazing synth string parts giving an epic sweep as Thom gives an amazing performance, culminating in each repetition of the line, "I'm not here, this isn't happening." And don't forget the way the sound just kinda dissolves in the end. It's probably my favorite Radiohead song, for what it's worth. Then, after "Treefingers," we come to "Optimistic," which probably would have been a more accessible track had it been made five years previous. It's a nice piece of discordant guitar rock, with guitars that (for whatever reason) remind me a lot of The Velvet Underground and a memorable melody that gets catchier with each listen.

Upon my first listen to "Idioteque," I really had no idea what I thought of it. Part of me had the reaction that I'm sure occurred in some form with a lot of listeners, namely that I didn't really like the idea of Radiohead making a song that so resembled dance pop, what with its emphasis on electronic beats. Well, in thinking that, I think I completely missed the point of the song, and I'm not just talking about the lyrics (which have a very apocalyptic feel). What the song captures perfectly for me, and I'm serious here, is a sense of utter despair at the disconnect I feel with those around me when I watch other people enjoying themselves dancing, particularly to beat-heavy music. You have to understand: I don't like dancing (in the "clubbing" sort of way) at all, but more than that I hate being around people who are enjoying themselves dancing, because it reinforces to me that I am fundamentally different from everybody else who is enjoying themselves, and watching people dance always triggers a deep (if temporary) fit of depression within me. Well, everything about this song properly captures that feeling, from the mournful chords playing over and over, to the fact that it's nearly impossible to actually dance to the song, to the weird clanging breakdown in the middle, to the paranoid, frightening vocals. This is the only song I can think of that properly captures and articulates my feelings on this, and even if this wasn't part of the intended point from the band, and even if I have other reasons to enjoy the song, this is enough to make it seem like a classic to me.

The closing two tracks always seem like a comedown to me after "Idioteque," but I still like them a lot. "Morning Bell," when you cut through the arrangements (heavily based in keyboards), is basically a pretty standard pop song, albeit one with Thom repeatedly singing "Cut the kids in half" or "Release me." And finally, "Motion Picture Soundtrack" might have started its life as an acoustic number (which Thom wanted on OK Computer), but I really like the way it's presented here. I like the idea of a song about death prominently featuring an organ (or something sounding like it), and I especially like the idea of a song with the lines, "Stop sending letters/Letters always get burned/It's not like the movies/They fed us on little white lies" including a bunch of cheesy Hollywood-style harps (in a sharp dose of irony). This is a sad, bitter, bleak song, and the fact that it ends on so much silence (I guess symbolizing death) is only appropriate.

I guess it really ends up coming down to what you want from Radiohead, and what you think they do best. I'm actually (still) a little surprised that I enjoy this album as much as I do, since I'm certainly more inclined towards guitar rock than this kind of music, but the fact remains that I feel that Radiohead do this kind of music better than they did guitar rock. Simply put, I consider this one of the most essential albums to come after 1990, and it's an absolute must for any collection.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |

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